06 Feb 2014

Three Crazy Early Flying Machines


The history of aviation is full of inventive heroes, from the Wright Brothers to Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, and Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the modern helicopter. However, their successes stand out from a long parade of failures. Some of these failures were useful: they added to our collective engineering knowledge about what wouldn’t actually work, or about what ideas were worth developing. Some of these failures were simply spectacular.

In this article, we look at some of the most outlandish inventions that man hoped would take him to the skies.



Leonardo da Vinci’s Orinthopter

The Italian genius Leonardo was one of the Renaissance’s great polymaths—a person with immense knowledge in many areas. He painted, sculpted, performed anatomical dissections, made maps of unsurpassed accuracy (for the time), and was, for a brief period in the late 1400s, completely absorbed with solving the problem of human aviation.

Unlike other westerners up to that point, whose efforts had mainly involved building wings out of canvas and feathers and jumping off of towers, Leonardo took a more scientific approach. He made a methodical, close study of the flight behaviors of birds. He inspected and dissected their wings. He intuitively understood, through his observations, some principles of aerodynamics and physics that would not be formally described for hundreds of years.

The result was his design for the orinthopter. It had a streamlined cabin and large, flapping bat-like wings. It was powered by a system of pedals and pulleys, which the pilot operated while lying in the cabin. He never got around to building it himself, but after the design’s re-discovery in the late 1700s, several other inventors designed prototypes of various sizes. A few of them even worked.

William Samuel Henson’s Aerial Steam Carriage

In the early 19th Century, steam power was all the rage. Steam-powered boats, steam-powered industrial machinery, and steam-powered locomotives increased the pace of life and made it seem that vast distances could be conquered quickly.  William Samuel Henson, a British engineer, conceived of a design for a flying machine that would incorporate steam power. He filed for a patent in 1843. He found business partners and investors and founded the Aerial Transit Company. He also hired a publicist, who commissioned engravings of the aerial carriage flying over famous world landmarks.

The one thing he didn’t do was build a prototype that actually worked. Smaller-scale models of the Henson Steam Carriage failed to perform as expected, and he was never able to realize his dream. He eventually gave up on aviation completely and relocated to New Jersey, where he spent the rest of his life.

Despite the failure of the steam-powered airplane, Henson’s design did include some features that proved influential. Curved, rather than flat, wings were one feature, along with propellers. Henson also braced his machine’s wings with wires and lightweight poles. Additionally, many other engineers during the 19th Century continued to develop powered flying machine designs around steam engines. While some of them worked in small-scale, none of them were capable of manned flight.

The Phillips Multiplane

As the quest to achieve manned flight moved into the 20th Century, certain common threads were emerging in design. The most tried-and-tested idea was that of fixed wings. And Horatio Phillips, an inventor from Britain, believed in wings. Believed in them so firmly, in fact, that he would pair up to 21 sets of wings on his prototype flying machines. His Philips Multiplanes had motors, rudder tails, and curved airfoils on the wings—all components that would eventually be used in successful aircraft. However, the stacks and stacks of wings made stability a challenge, to say the least.

Phillips’s 1904 machine did not fly at all—it folded up like a wallet on takeoff. His 1907 machine, which appears to be a set of Venetian blinds mounted on a motorcycle, only managed 50 feet before crashing. No airplane insurance back then, unfortunately.